January 09, 2002 01:00 PM

Marketing manager Lex van den Berghe, one of the few remaining contestants on “Survivor: Africa,” is already an exciting hometown hero in otherwise sleepy little Santa Cruz, Calif., where the heavily tattooed and earringed 38-year-old is a very big deal. This Thursday the world will know if, in fact, he is a very big winner, as he may be the one to pocket the $1 million that the show will award in its finale, which was taped last year. van den Berghe is prohibited from talking about the show or its outcome, though, as the Associated Press points out, that sure hasn’t stopped his neighbors from yapping about him. Santa Cruz Sentinel journalist Peggy Townsend, assigned to cover the show’s third season after van den Berghe made the cut to appear on the show, hears from independent stringers who alert her to Lex sightings in the suburb. (Santa Cruz is about 100 miles south of San Francisco.) One woman spotted him and his family selecting their Christmas tree. Another encountered him buying pajamas at a department store. Most telling of all, perhaps, is that he has been seen driving a new-looking Subaru Outback. For Thursday, Santa Cruz’s major night spot, The Catalyst, is trying to book van den Berghe’s band, Luckydog. Fans, meanwhile, have planned a post-show potluck dinner, to take place whether he wins or not.

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